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The Power Look--White Males Only?

Vivia Chen

October 26, 2010

04_72dpi Your face could determine your success--and that of your firm--says a new study. If you're unsure if you've got the "right" look, check out the images of Gibson Dunn's Kenneth Doran, Skadden Arps's Robert Sheehan , and Ropes & Gray's John Montgomery

If you look nothing like any of them, consider a makeover. Better yet, download their firm photos and head straight to your plastic surgeon.

Of managing partners in The Am Law 100, Doran, Montgomery, and Sheehan (who stepped down as the head in 2009) embody the power look, said Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto to the ABA Journal Blog.  "Power in the managing partners' faces predicted profit margin and overall profitability of the law firms, while there was no link between warm faces and profitability," reports the ABA about Rule's new study with Nalini Ambady of Tufts University. (See press release by Social Psychological and Personality Science.)

Using photos of 73 managing partners from Am Law 100 firms (the researchers were unable to get photos of all MPs), the researchers asked undergraduates to rate the photos based on the appearance of dominance, maturity, attractiveness, likability, and trustworthiness. The students looked at the partners' current Web site photos, and ones taken from their college yearbook photos.

It seems like those Big-Men-on-Campus turned out to be Big-Men-at-the-Firm later in life, according to the press release:

The powerfulness of a leader's face at a law firm seems to translate into profits for the whole firm. And the critical elements of power are present in the face more than 30 years before it is a reliable marker of leadership effectiveness.

Doran, Montgomery, and Sheehan seem to be fine specimen of the profession. But I'm not so sure I feel their power just by looking at their faces. Their appeal must be more nuanced, more reality-based--definitely not that usual Hollywood sort of power-look.

But they are white and male--to state the obvious--just like most of the Am Law 100 and 200 managing partners. And maybe that's the baseline. "Given the small number of women and minorities in our sample, it would be hard for them not to be," says Rule.

Which brings up something the report doesn't cover: the role that gender and ethnicity might play in our notions of a "powerful" face. Interestingly, the report finds that there's "no link between warm faces and profitability." Does that mean women, who might be perceived to be more "nurturing," might have a tougher time as a leader?

It's hard to say what this all means. Still, I couldn't help but wonder how women, gays, and minorities would fare in this perception/reality exercise.

Do I really want to know?

Related post: "Pretty Enough for this Job Market?"

 Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.


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This is the asian "power look"


Big glasses, perfect parted hair. Many asian c-level executives in America resemble him.

There are already tons of studies correlating physical characteristics (unlikely to reflect actual performance capacity)--such as *height*--with income, etc. Note that CEO's of corporations tend to be taller than average and that the height success gradient applies when other factors, such as school, GPA, etc. are controlled for. Surely, no one actually says to themselves, "This guy is too short to be our CEO", but built into the lizard brain are programs not susceptible to easy (or maybe *any significant*) correction.

You write, "I couldn't help but wonder how women, gays, and minorities would fare in this perception/reality exercise."

So, Viv, are you saying there aren't any gay white guys? Are you saying there aren't any white Latino guys?

Or are you just too used to including those groups in your grievance coalition to really think about it?

I believe that sex/gender and racial discrimination are still quite pervasive in our society. That being said, if you read the actual study, it says nothing about sex/gender or race. The study examines the consistency of facial features across time whether features in young adulthood predict career success.

One cannot reasonably conclude that "white, male" is determinant of the face of success, power or profit based on this study simply because an overwhelming number of the people in the sample are white and male. Plenty of other hypotheses might explain the white/male dominance. For example, widely pervasive sex/gender/race discrimination in education decades ago is a more plausible explanation because it takes decades to become an MP...

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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